I have recently read with great interest a highly stimulating guide to funerals by Thomas G. Long, a Professor of Preaching at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, in Atlanta Georgia. A minister of the Presbyterian Church (USA), in 1996 he was named by Baylor University as one of the twelve most effective preachers in the English-speaking world. His book, Accompany Them With Singing – The Christian Funeral, (Westminster John Knox, Louisville Kentucky) was originally published in hardback in 2009, but was re-published as a paperback in 2013. To my shame I have only discovered it this year.
The title of Long’s book is taken from the fourth century Apostolic Constitutions of the Apostles: “In the funerals of the departed, accompany them with singing, if they were faithful in Christ, for precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints”. Instead of the dirges and sad songs of flute players favoured by pagans, the early Christians walked to the grave with only the music of human voices singing psalms and hymns. “What is the reason for the hymns?” asked John Chrysostom, the ‘golden-mouthed’ preacher and Archbishop of Constantinople. “Is it not that we praise God and thank him that he has crowned the departed and freed him from suffering and that God has now the deceased, freed from fear”. The early Christians believed that they were taking their dead not to a final resting place, but to a place of departure, a point of embarkation as the deceased travelled to God.
By contrast today the body is often privately disposed of. Instead of a funeral people prefer memorial services or thanksgiving services where the focus is on the life of the deceased with a series of tributes from friends and family. Long argues for a return to the early Christian understanding of a funeral service as a completion of the deceased’s baptism, where the focus is upon the victory of Christ in which the deceased now shares. Long wrote:
A Christian funeral is a continuation and elaboration of the baptismal service. If baptism is a form of worshipful drama performed at the beginning of the Christian life, a funeral is – or should be – an equally dramatic, and symmetrical, performance of worship performed at the end of life…. In baptism, new Christians are ‘buried with Christ by baptism into death’ and they come up from the waters raised to ‘walk in newness of life’. In funerals, these same Christians, having travelled the pilgrim way, are once again buried with Christ in death in the sure confidence that they will be raised to new life. In baptism, the faithful sang them into this new way of life; now they gather around to sing them to God in death… The funeral is not just a collection of inspiring words said on the occasion of someone’s death. It is rather a dramatic event in which the church acts out what it believes to be happening from the perspective of faith… As the church has been travelling with the baptized saint along the road of faith, the church now walks with the deceased on ‘the last mile of the way’ to the place of farewell.
For Long funerals sermons are “proclamations of what the gospel has to say about these people walking along this path carrying the body of this brother or sister in sorrow over this loss and in joyful hope of the resurrection”. It is this need to proclaim the gospel which for him constitutes the only genuine sine qua non for a funeral. In striking fashion he declared:
The indispensability of shouting out the good news of Easter at a funeral gets highlighted when we realize that there are actually two preachers at every funeral. Death – capital-D Death loves to preach and never misses a funeral. Death’s sermon is powerful and always the same: ‘Damn you! Damn all of you! I win every time. I destroy all loving relationships. I shatter all community. I dash all hope. I have claimed another victim. Look at the corpse; look at the open grave there is your evidence. I always win!….. It is the great privilege of the funeral preacher to shake a fist in the face of Death, to proclaim again the vow of baptism and the cry of Easter triumph: ‘O Death, we reject all your lies! O Death, where is your sting? Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory in Jesus Christ!’
I found this book a helpful corrective to many so-called Christian funerals today.
I like the symmetry with baptism idea: I have been implicitly pointing to that in a smaller way for some years when meeting with bereaved families and going through the service. I have made the point that at the Commendation we use someone’s full Christian names but not their surname, just as we would at an infant baptism in my tradition. I then point to the funeral as being a mirror image of the baptism. This post has given me much more to take into those thoughts – thank you.
Thank you for these timely words Paul. I’d want to add a comment about memorial/thanksgiving services straight after a ‘private’ funeral at the crematorium. Although I have not taken many funerals in recent years (although attended several!), I have lamented the absence of a ‘body’ at the service that most people attend. The funeral is amongst other things about the person who has died and to have their body present is both affirming of them and a stark reminder of the reality of death – which is often being denied. The presence of the body also makes the preaching about the resurrection much more powerful – because it seems to me to add power to Long’s ‘second sermon’ as a glorious act of Christian hope and defiance in the light of the apparent power of death.